The Good Doctor
The Good Doctor is Damon Galgut’s fifth novel, a finalist for the Booker Prize and Winner of the Commonwealth Writer’s Prize for the region of Africa. The novel, which offers a pessimistic view of modern South Africa, centers on a hospital, built by the apartheid government in one of its former homelands. With political change in Pretoria, the homeland has disintegrated, and the hospital no longer has a reason for existing.
The story is narrated by a disillusioned Dr Frank Eloff, whose main ambition is to succeed his black female boss, when she is promoted. Her public viewpoint reflects the new South Africa of change and innovation, but privately she takes no action on her own initiative, and moreover is a very poor surgeon. Into this situation comes Dr Laurence Waters, an idealistic young graduate, who has chosen to spend his required year of community service at the most remote hospital he can find. Not unnaturally, being the only two whites at the hospital, they are forced to share a room.
Waters is the antithesis of Eloff. He is enthusiastic and has an ability to believe, and a desire to participate, in the “new” South Africa. Eloff, who grew up in, and who served in the military of, the “old” South Africa, is unable to embrace this viewpoint as he is far too cynical, and is aware of the hypocrisy that permeates this ideal.
The interplay between the two doctors is where Galgut is at his best. Often, what is left unsaid is as important as what is said. Eloff’s character is well developed, and portrays a Southern Africa that I grew up in. One particularly telling image is of Eloff having an affair with a black woman, with him only knowing her anglicized name. Waters character is not as strong, but it appeals on a humanitarian level.
Any novel dealing with this subject matter is bound to be compared to J.M. Coetzee’s Booker Prize winning novel, Disgrace. Disgrace is a more in-your-face novel, delivering its message up front. Coetzee shocks you. Galgut uses a different style, far more muted and fluid. Coetzee’s style could be described as more like a portrait, in that you concentrate on the core theme, while Galgut’s is more like a landscape, where it is important to take in the entire picture.
One style is not necessarily better than the other, and for anyone interested in Southern Africa, reading both will provide a better understanding of the country, and some of its people.